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Spokane book binder carries on his father’s passion

Sun., Sept. 15, 2013, midnight

Willem Bosch works on the packaging of a restored book for a customer on Wednesday in his Spokane shop. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Willem Bosch works on the packaging of a restored book for a customer on Wednesday in his Spokane shop. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Willem Bosch’s Dutch grandmother watched neighbors fleeing their homes during World War I, carrying little more than their family Bibles.

“So when dad was 14, his mother advised him to become a book binder. ‘You’ll never be unemployed,’ she told him.”

She was right.

Bosch’s father learned the binding trade in Holland, eventually moved his family to Spokane and pursued his vocation until he retired at age 70.

Bosch’s own introduction to binding came when he was 5 and still living in Holland.

“Dad brought home pages of a calendar – their beautiful velvet finish and brilliant colors stuck in my mind. He arranged stacks, and all of us walked along the table gathering pages, putting them in order and piling them up” to be bound.

Bosch’s father eventually taught him the trade and, after a couple of detours, Bosch opened his own shop here 33 years ago.

Today, the shelves of Arts & Crafts Book Manufacturing are stacked with frail-looking volumes patiently awaiting regeneration. Elsewhere, countertops are crowded with book presses, a gluing machine and other artifacts of Bosch’s antiquarian service.

Soft-spoken and looking appropriately bookish – he could play the title role in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” the film about a beloved English schoolteacher – Bosch recently described how he almost worked for the IRS, and why he’s glad he didn’t.

S-R: When did you start working for your father?

Bosch: We moved here from Wisconsin when I was in ninth grade. That’s when I left school to work for my dad full time. He only paid me 50 cents an hour, so at night I worked at Dick’s drive-in for minimum wage.

S-R: Did you see this career as your destiny?

Bosch: Oh, no. I loved working with numbers – the fact that if I’m right, I can prove it.

S-R: So what did you do?

Bosch: I joined the Army at 17 and earned my GED during boot camp. After leaving the military, I earned an A.A. degree from Spokane Falls and was in my last year at Eastern when I applied to become an IRS auditor. After multiple interviews, I was told, “Mr. Bosch, you’re exactly what we’re looking for. Come in Monday and we’ll sign you up for a $30,000-a-year job, plus we’ll pay for your final year of college on top of the G.I. Bill.”

I thought I was on the fast track. But when I went in Monday morning, the guy was beet red. He said he’d assumed because I were in the Army that I was an American.

I said, “No, it’s not required for the military.”

He said, “Well, for this position it is.”

I became a U.S. citizen that year, but decided I didn’t want to work for someone else. So when my dad moved his shop to Oakesdale, I bought some of his equipment and opened my own business. I started out in the old Fox theater building, and moved here (618 E. Second Ave.) in 1988.

S-R: Do you have much competition?

Bosch: I’m the last hand book binder in Spokane. There are others in Seattle and Portland, but I always have a year’s worth of work waiting for me.

S-R: How many books do you bind or repair in a year?

Bosch: Hundreds.

S-R: What’s the largest format you bind?

Bosch: Newspaper broadsheets.

S-R: And the smallest?

Bosch: I made some books one-half inch by three-quarter inch to go with dollhouse furniture once.

S-R: What books do people typically bring you for repair?

Bosch: At least 50 percent are Bibles. Others include old county atlases, family histories and children’s books – I restored a beautiful 1909 copy of Aesop’s Fables. Soon after “Son” (Jack Olsen’s account of the Kevin Coe rape case) came out (in 1983), I repaired more than 100 copies of the hard-cover edition because it was so poorly made.

S-R: What’s the oldest book you’ve restored?

Bosch: A 300-year-old English family Bible. The original surname in its register was the same family name as the person who brought it in.

And the entire family genealogy – births, deaths, marriages – was recorded.

S-R: How about unusual requests?

Bosch: I put a nice leather cover on a notebook that once belonged to (bassist) Stuart Sutcliffe, an original member of the Beatles.

S-R: Are there jobs you decline?

Bosch: A young couple brought in a book they’d inherited and wanted to sell, and asked me to clean it up a bit. It was a Lewis and Clark first edition worth $10,000 to $15,000. I told them I could put a new cover on it, but that would destroy its value.

S-R: Anything else?

Bosch: A neo-Nazi from North Idaho wanted me to bind some propaganda books. I’m damn lucky my dad wasn’t here, because he spent time in a German concentration camp when he was 21 or 22 years old. I didn’t want trouble with the customer, so I priced the job so high I was sure he won’t want me to do it.

S-R: What do you charge to restore a damaged book?

Bosch: Anywhere from $75 to $900, but most repairs are under $250.

S-R: What does that work out to by the hour?

Bosch: When I think about it, it’s a little depressing. Over a year’s time, I earn a little more than minimum wage – some days less than that.

S-R: How long must most customers wait for their book to be restored?

Bosch: Usually about a year. I try to get to personal Bibles in 30 to 60 days, but I have a couple going on 90 days.

S-R: Can they pay extra and move ahead in line?

Bosch: It depends on my backlog. There are certain operation-manual jobs that have to be done within 10 to 15 working days or it can cost my customer thousands in fines. I’ll expedite a repair job if the customer wants to pay extra and I can fit it in. But what I like about the business is minimal pressure.

S-R: How much time do you spend here?

Bosch: At least 8 hours a day, six days a week. And I rarely take off a holiday, other than religious holidays. My last vacation was in 1996.

S-R: Are you a religious man?

Bosch: Yes. And, to me, restoring Bibles is kind of like God’s work.

S-R: Has technology had any impact on how you restore books?

Bosch: No. If I’m going to do it right, I still have to do it the way dad was taught. What technology has done is take away some of the business I use to get. I did a lot of proposal work for Itron when they were first developing products. Now those proposals are made with Powerpoint.

S-R: Besides the passage of time, what damages books?

Bosch: The biggest problem with leather-bound books is that nobody oils them. You need to rub a light coat of oil on the cover once a year to keep it supple and alive. (Bosch recommends Meltonian shoe cream, Lexol leather conditioner or Fiebing 4-Way Leather Care.) And I have a pet peeve with the carrying cases people use for their personal Bibles. If you put the Bible in with its spine facing up, you pull the inside of the book out of its cover.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Bosch: The customers. And the freedom of not having stress put on me by co-workers I can’t get along with.

S-R: What skills does this trade demand?

Bosch: Patience, mainly. And the ability to tear a book down to the stage where the original book binder had just finished sewing it, and work back through the process to produce a quality book. If it wasn’t sewn in the first place, I drill holes, get out my thread and needle and tie it up.

S-R: Do you own books yourself?

Bosch: Very few. I did recently buy a copy of Aesop’s Fables to read to my fiancé’s grandson because of that one I repaired. The new one is nowhere near as beautiful as the one I worked on.

S-R: Was your grandmother right? Will this business always have a future?

Bosch: Not a lucrative one, but there will always be books needing repair. Today there’s on-demand book printing and on-demand binding – junk books that satisfy some people’s needs. But they’re not the same quality as these old books.

S-R: Who will take over for you?

Bosch: Lord only knows. When I get close to retirement, maybe I’ll find someone who has a real heart for it. If you’re just in it for the money, you’re in the wrong business. But it’s a very satisfying job.

S-R: How do you relax?

Bosch: I come to work.

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at

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